Review: The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God

the reformation and the irrepressible word of god

The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of Godedited by Scott M. Manetsch. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of eight papers on the vital role of scripture in Reformation thought and practice.

“Irrepressible.” What a great word to use in a title. Mirriam-Webster’s definition of the word is “impossible to repress, restrain, or control.” The Reformers often pointed to Hebrews 4:12 which says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (NIV).

I suspect for many, “irrepressible” is far from the first word that might come to mind as they think of scripture. Some might consider it ancient, confusing, irrelevant, or even tedious. Yet many others (I would include myself here) have experienced the power of scripture to convict, to comfort, to open one’s eyes in wonder toward God, to assure in one’s hope in life and death, and to “equip for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). It is not so much a matter of understanding the Bible as discovering that I am understood by the Word of God, as God speaks through the words on the page, knowing me better than I know myself, facing me with those things of which I’ve been blind, deluded, and sometimes willfully oblivious.

Beginning with Martin Luther, it has been contended that the Reformation was driven by the study of and preaching of the scriptures as the Word of God for the people of God. This drove translation of the scriptures into the vernacular in countries where the Reformation took hold, particularly in Germany and England. In more contemporary scholarship, the power of the “scripture principle” has been eclipsed by other factors — economic, sociological, and political. However, recent scholarship has seen a resurgence of the Bible as a key factor in the Reformation, and this volume, consisting of eight papers plus an introduction by Scott Manetsch and an afterword by Timothy George, is a significant contribution to that scholarship. The papers were first presented at a conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2017 on the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.

The collection consists of four parts, each with two papers (complete table of contents at the publisher’s website):

  1. Biblical Interpretation in the Reformation
  2. Preaching and Pastoral Care in the Reformation
  3. Justification and the Reformation
  4. The Christian Life in the Reformation

Space does not permit discussing every paper, all of which were both accessible and rich in insight. David S. Dockery discussed Christological interpretation as central to the authority and interpretation of scripture. Scripture is not the final authority but Christ to whom all of scripture points and through which Christ speaks to us. Michael A. G. Haykin’s paper on Hugh Latimer highlighted his passion for the preaching of the Word of God. Latimer urged people to pray for both him and themselves that by God’s Spirit:

“…I may speak the word of God, and teach you to understand the same; unto you that you may be edified through it, and your lives reformed and amended; and that his honour and glory may increase daily amongst us.”

The following essay by Ronald K. Rittgers featured the devotional literature of the Reformation, which usually consisted of quoting one text of scripture after another, without commentary. It was believed that scripture read and meditated upon in this way was powerful to minister to hearts, a kind of “sacrament” as it were.

Michael S. Horton’s essay on justification makes a striking proposal that I could see as serving as the basis of a more extended research project. He observes that the idea of justification by faith was not discovered in the Reformation, but is evident in the church fathers. He focuses particularly on Chrysostom, who recognized Paul’s distinction of works of the law and faith, the difference between justification and sanctification and the idea of justification as the “great exchange” between Christ and sinner.

I also thought the last essay in the collection, by David Luy helpfully discussed both what is meant and not meant by the “priesthood of all believers,” a key Reformation tenet. He shows both that this was not meant to replace church offices or hierarchy, but rather that all Christians, having the Word of God, may share the grace of God in Christ with others.

Timothy George concludes by asking what we may learn from the Reformation, and particularly fleshes out how the Reformers ideas about scripture as the Word of God deepen and give substance to the four distinctives of evangelicalism noted by David Bebbington, without which evangelicalism is thin gruel, neither satisfying nor enduring.

It seems to me that George and the contributors to this volume have an important word to those who wish to move beyond the Reformation or are calling for a new one. In one sense, the church is to be semper reformanda, ever reforming. For some, what needs to be reformed is a “bibliolatry” that they perceive in the Reformation. No doubt, there are some that worship the Bible rather than the Lord to whom the Reformers pointed. But such bibliolatry is evident neither in the Reformers nor in this collection. What needs to be continually reformed is us–our hearts, our structures and practices, our tendencies to self-sufficiency and self-promotion, our indifference to God and other people. Only the alive and active, double-edged sword of God’s Word, illumined by God’s Spirit, pointing to God’s Son, can do this work. In this work, I was reminded afresh of the preciousness of this irrepressible Word for the people of God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

What I’m Reading — June 2015

I’m in kind of a crunch right now between back to back trips to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. So this post will be briefer, and perhaps not so carefully crafted as some. Just thought I’d catch you up on what i’m reading right now and my reactions as I’m in the midst of several books.

Private Doubt, Public DilemmaJust started Keith Thomson’s Private Doubt, Public Dilemma, which I downloaded from Netgalley. Looks like an interesting exploration on the religion and science front, exploring cutting edge issues in the biosciences. This is taken from a Yale lecture series. A bit curious why his primary inspirations are Jefferson and Darwin and where that will go. I actually think one of the more interesting American figures to deal with religion-science issues was B.B. Warfield.

GrassrootsGrassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up by Simon Chan is trying to do just what the title suggests. He wants to explore Asian contributions to Christian theology, not by listening to academics, Asian or otherwise, but rather the people who make up Asian churches, Christians on the ground in these cultures. What a novel idea. Just getting into it. Chan is a bit of a dense read, but I’m intrigued!

The Wright BrothersI’ve loved everything David McCullough has written and am finding The Wright Brothers no exception. Interesting fact that I discovered was that the Wright’s spent less than $1000, and all of that their own money, to get the point of putting a plane in the sky at Kitty Hawk. A government project costing $70,000 ended up a terrible failure in the Potomac! I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but McCullough tells a riveting tale!

Words of LifeTimothy Ward’s Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God gives a contemporary, yet reformed perspective on the doctrine of the scripture. The novel thing is that he doesn’t start from systematics but from the Bible itself. He also draws on “speech-act” theory, which understands scripture as a type of divine speech act. I’ve seen caricatures of reformed thinking about scripture set up as straw men and destroyed. It would be better for critics to take on thoughtful writers like Ward.

An All Around MinistryFinally, our Dead Theologians reading group is discussing a collection of Charles Spurgeon sermons under the title An All-Around Ministry. These were given at a series of pastors conferences Spurgeon helped host. They sparkle with wit and contain much wise counsel for any in ministry.

That’s what’s on my book stand at present. Stay tuned for reviews at a blog near you!

Review: Engaging the Doctrine of Revelation: The Mediation of the Gospel through Church and Scripture

RevelationI have more than one friend who grew up in an evangelical or mainline Protestant background who has converted to Roman Catholicism. For many, this has been a thoughtful decision carefully taken. One of the reasons some take this step is the focus of Protestants on personal interpretation of the scripture, the belief that each believer is capable of understanding the scriptures unmediated by the church, pastors, church doctrine and tradition, among other things. They see diverse interpretations in many cases and Christians justifying almost anything on the basis of their reading of scripture and unchallengeable because they claim “the Bible tells us so.”

Others in the stream of the churches of the Reformation appeal to Sola Scriptura, the authority of the Bible alone, and the distortions or even contradictions they observe in the traditions of the church. They join Martin Luther in appealing to the scriptures alone, saying “Here I stand.”

Matthew Levering, who currently teaches theology at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois was educated in a Protestant seminary (Duke) yet embraces and articulates a Catholic theology of the relation of scripture and church in how God has revealed the Christian message. What I found most helpful was his thoughtful engagement with a range of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theologians in an exploration that argues both the inspiration and authority of the biblical text and while also contending for the crucial role of the church in clarifying and mediating our understanding of the Word of God we find in the scriptures. We encounter N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Alexander Schememann, as well as von Balthasar and Ratzinger in the pages of this book.

BC_MatthewLevering_rt

Matthew Levering

Levering begins by discussing the nature of the Church as a missional community founded by the Son and the Spirit, countering the individualism of the post-Reformation church. He moves on to explore the importance of the Church’s liturgy as the context in which the Gospel message of scripture is proclaimed. The hierarchy of the priesthood has been an important in maintaining a unity in our understanding of revealed truth. The Church’s councils and creeds are especially illustrative of this importance. Church councils such as Nicaea clarified the shared understanding of scripture on such important issues as the Trinity and the nature of Christ as fully God and fully human, resolving the contested interpretations of scripture around these issues.

Levering takes on the role of tradition in the transmission of Gospel revelation through the generations and argues against those who see these traditions sometimes in conflict with themselves, believing in the continued work of the Spirit to guide the Church. He contends, along with John Henry Newman, for the development of doctrinal understanding through the history of the church and, against many post-modern approaches, for the possibility of propositional truth, that God reveals God’s self in cognitively understandable terms.

His last chapters articulate a high view of scripture’s overall trustworthiness, arguing against those who would differentiate between errant and inerrant portions. He concludes with a surprising chapter supporting the contribution of Greek philosophy to the Christian understanding of God.

There was much here I appreciated. I too find troubling personal biblical interpretation gone amuck. I think it is undeniable that the Church has played a crucial role in articulating our gospel faith, drawing on the scriptures. Similarly, there is a recognition of the work of the Spirit of God at work in continuing to develop our understand of the testimony of the scriptures.

At the same time, I think there is much more to be engaged in a discussion of tradition and the magisterium.  What is to be done when traditions are distorted and the hierarchy is not filled with the Spirit and is advancing what can only be construed as the traditions of humans, particularly at the expense of the Word of God? Is the Church to simply wait for however many centuries it takes for the Lord of the church to right things?

I also wish Levering would have talked more about the appropriate use of the scriptures by individuals. Certainly since Vatican II the study of the Bible by the laity has been encouraged. And countless generations of Christians have advanced in their spiritual lives through personal reading and study of the Bible. It seems to me that a place for mutual engagement between Protestants and Catholics would be to explore the relation between our individual and communal reading of scripture and to what degree should we subject our personal readings to the understanding of scripture in the wider community.

Levering’s book is a thoughtful contribution to this basic question of how the Church hears and understands God’s word revealed to us in the scriptures. It is Catholic without being anti-Protestant. It is both a book of clarity and conviction and yet an irenic engagement with those who don’t identify as Roman Catholics.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free in e-book format from the publisher through Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

A God, A Rulebook, or Trustworthy Testimony

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

Bible open to John 5. (c)2015, Robert C Trube

What am I talking about? The Bible, the Christian scriptures.

Some people treat the Bible as if it was the fourth member of the Godhead. Sometimes, it seems we are more zealous to defend a notion of what the Bible is than we are for God’s glory, God’s reputation in the world.

I think many view the Bible as a book of rules. Do these things and you will go to heaven. Don’t do these things and God will get you. Let the people into our community who keep the rules. Exclude the ones who don’t. Study hard so you know the rules. If you are creative, figure out ways to extend the rules to every situation, even ones never envisioned by the rules. Exclude those who don’t agree with your creative interpretations. Congratulate yourself on your diligence in study and rule-keeping. You are one of God’s star pupils.

Of course, that is only good if you are good at study and rule-keeping and many of us are honest enough to admit that we are not. So, should we just pack it in since we are in a mess with God anyway? I think that is how a number of people feel.

This Sunday, our church looked at John 5:19-46 together. Verses 39 and 40 suggest a very different reason for the scriptures:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life.These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,  yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

Jesus is proposing that the Bible is neither God nor a rule book but rather testimony about himself that can be trusted. The central idea of the Bible is to help people find life through trusting and following Jesus. The Pharisees, who were great at battling for the Bible and devising ingenious rule-keeping strategies were missing the point. In fact they were so caught up in these things that they were refusing something better, real life, being connected to the God who made them through his Son who had come to them.

But, you say, there really are a lot of rules in the Bible. It sure looks like a rule book in places. What’s that all about? There are two ways to answer this. One is that the rules really reflect what God is like and what we need to be like to live with Him. They tell us we need God to do something both to wipe the slate clean from all the ways we break the rules, and to deal with our propensity to do the opposite of what God wants for us. That something is Jesus and the life he gives means both forgiveness for what we’ve done and the power to increasingly live differently.

The second answer is that the instructions and commands we find, especially those given by Jesus and in the New Testament are not rules but tell us how we might most faithfully and joyfully enter into the life Jesus has for us. They teach us how to love God and each other and to experience wholeness in our own selves.

There’s a good deal more that can be said about all this so if you have questions, leave them in the comments and let’s talk!

The real deal that I want to come back to is that the most important thing to look for when reading the Bible is how it points us toward Jesus. Earlier in the passage we see this is the Jesus who claims equality with the Father and to have been entrusted with the Father’s authority both to give life and to judge (verses 19-27). If that’s true, then there is no one more important to know!

So, if you are spiritually seeking, then it seems one of the most important questions you can ask as you read the Bible is, how does this testify to Jesus and what is this telling me about him? In some sense, all of the Bible does this, but I would suggest for newbie Bible readers that the gospels do this most clearly.

And for those who are Christ-followers, how are we viewing the Bible? Have we gotten caught up in some form of Bible wars? Are we congratulating ourselves on how well we keep the rules, or how much we know about the Bible? Or are we not paying much attention at all to what it says, depending on sermons to do that for us? What John says is that this book tells us who Jesus is and how we can find abundant life as we get to know and follow him better and better.

Going Deeper Question: How do you think about the Bible, and how are you interacting with it?

Review: One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal?

One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal?
One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? by Dave Brunn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Why are there so many versions of the Bible in English? And which of them should I read?” Those are questions I’ve often been asked by both believers and those exploring Christianity confronted by the bewildering array of translations you can find in the Bible section of any book store.

What is perhaps less apparent is that the answer to the second of those questions has been a source of sometimes bitter contention in certain sectors of the church. There are still “KJV only” factions. Likewise, there is contention over “literal” versus “meaning-based” or “dynamic equivalent” versions of the Bible. The former believe that one should translate word for word from Hebrew or Greek to English. The latter argue that for accuracy of meaning, translations may often resort more to “phrase by phrase” renderings.

Dave Brunn believes the divisions over translations are actually scandalous–one more way in which Christians are dividing over what should unite them. He also believes that our many translations in English are actually a blessing, allowing us to compare renderings as we seek to accurately understand a particular text.

Brunn is a Bible translator, but one who has worked in translation work in Papua New Guinea translating the Bible into Lamogai. This gives him a unique perspective on translation work in several ways. For one, he argues that most of the contention about translations is an English-based discussion, assuming that this is the only real language into which Bibles are translated. For another, Lamogai is a very differently structured language from the biblical languages as well as from English, which is actually part of the same language family as Greek. One of his contentions is that if word for word translation were God’s intention, then all the languages which God brought about as a result of the tower of Babel would correspond word for word (and even prefix/suffix) to the biblical languages. The truth is that none of them do.

Brunn does not leave this on a theoretical level. Through scores of charts he shows how all of the versions, even the most “literal” often give renderings that are not word for word, and that in some instances, some of the more idiomatic translations actually give closer word for renderings than these literal translations. He builds up evidence that this occurs in hundreds if not thousands of instances in the Bible and that if word for word is the only standard for translation, ALL of our English translations fail.

Brunn actually believes that they all fail for good reasons. Sometimes, word for word renderings from one language to another result in nonsense in the translation language, or actually are misleading in terms of the meaning of the text. Sometimes the questions are as simple as grammar and may mean rendering a verb as a noun or vice versa. Sometimes the question is readability. For example, Young’s translation comes as close to word for word as any, and while helpful for study, is laborious to read. Brunn points out that this isn’t a characteristic of the original Hebrew or Greek, which read well, but rather a result of word for word rendering. Thus, he would argue that all “literal” translations are really “modified literal” and actually these and the translations that focus more on meaning than formal equivalence actually have much in common with the more “literal”.

The author concludes by passing along the counsel of a professor that ideally, there should be a good “modified literal” and good “idiomatic” translation every twenty years and he believes we are actually blessed to have such a situation in the English language for the light each of these sheds on the other.

One quibble with the book is that I don’t think the author in the end finally answers the question in the subtitle: Are all translations created equal? In saying that all the translations have much in common and are valuable when used together he does not answer this question explicitly. At most he seems to say we might dispute renderings in particular translations. In my own experience, I would not say to a new believer or seeker, pick any of them, they are all equal or all equally valuable. I would discourage starting with the KJV, because while beautiful, it is not based on the best manuscripts and the language is archaic and may be misunderstood or more difficult to understand. For a first Bible, I would probably choose readability without the idiosyncracies of paraphrase versions. For a second Bible, I would encourage getting something that is closer to word for word once they are serious about studying texts.

All in all, I think this book is a valuable contribution to understanding the issues involved in translation that hopefully will contribute to a wider appreciation of the wealth of translations available in English, more careful engagement with diverse translations, and a passion to see the scriptures translated in every ‘heart language’ in the world.

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A good resource for those who do not want to go out and by a plethora of Bibles to compare translations is Bible Gateway, which allows you to look up verses and passages in a variety of translations (including non-English language translations).

Review: Discovering Lectio Divina: Bringing Scripture Into Ordinary Life

Discovering Lectio Divina: Bringing Scripture Into Ordinary Life
Discovering Lectio Divina: Bringing Scripture Into Ordinary Life by Evan B. Howard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lectio divina is an ancient practice of reflective reading and praying about the scriptures that includes the elements of slow and repeated reading (lectio), reflection (meditatio), prayer in response to one’s reflections (oratio) and resting in God’s presence (contemplatio).

What Wilhoit and Howard give us is not a “how to” manual for lectio so much as a deeply theological and formational reflection of what it means to weave this discipline into one’s life. They begin with our thirst for God and the scriptures as God’s speech, his invitation to relationship.

They then focus on the fact that we do not come alone as we read the text but read with and in the Spirit’s presence who helps us understand. The authors walk us through their own reading experience in the story of Jesus and the paralytic in Luke 5:17-26.

Succeeding chapters focus on meditating (with a fascinating discussion of meditation being compared to a dog growling over/gnawing a bone), praying (“prayer as the house that lectio divina inhabits” is a particularly striking idea), and contemplation (they discuss how in relationships, we have our verbal conversation, our thoughts of the other as we speak, and then a more foundational level, our awareness of our presence in the presence of the other). Each flesh out the bare bones of the different elements of lectio. The concluding chapter speaks of the rhythm of life in which scripture leads into action and action leads into scripture.

Overall, I found this a very helpful book. Beyond the personal examples shared, I would have found some exercises in lectio helpful, particularly for those new to the practice. The book assumes that readers will translate concepts into practice. However, for those already acquainted with the practice, the book is quite helpful in taking one deeper into how lectio divina helps us encounter the living God.

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